First impressions can be terribly misleading. Our introduction to James, a former director of music videos turned mobile phone salesman, is distinctly unpromising. From the opening pages of Kris Kenway's latest novel, it's clear that we're in early midlife crisis territory, as the hero frets about his dead-end job and his failing relationship with sexy-but- distant girlfriend, Fran.
Skip to chapter two, in which we meet our heroine, Maya - beautiful, single and under pressure from an overbearing mother to choose from an endless stream of suitors. So far, so underwhelming. The trajectory of the book looks to be back-of-fag-packet stuff: boy is going to meet girl, conquer obstacles, live happily ever after.
In some ways, the synopsis isn't inaccurate. But there's another hero in this story, and it puts all the other players in the shade. By chapter three, James - yawning his way through another business trip - is making an enforced stopover in Beirut, Maya's home city, and the place which sparks the narrative into life.
Kenway's affection for Lebanon shines from every page. James emerges into the chaos of its streets struggling to reconcile the landscape he expects to see - the broken pavements and bullet-ridden buildings - with unnerving reminders of home - the ubiquitous Ben and Jerry's, and Pizza Hut. Beirut, he observes, "whispered to you that it was European, but the only people who heard it were those who weren't listening properly."
The cityscape opens up the horizons of Kenway's tale. A large cast is assembled, from wide-boy Hassan, nursing a private grief over the brother he has not seen for 10 years, to Mrs Jihad, a gossipy and interfering neighbour with secrets of her own to hide, to 13-year-old Mahmoud, longing to impress the girls with wheelies on his pizza-delivery bike. The timeframe of the narrative is tightly compressed - by chapter 15, we're a mere three months into James's new life. Kenway has also chosen to set his story in the recent past, in a Lebanon poised for the Israeli withdrawal from the south of the country. The pull-out of the troops forms the backdrop to the novel's closing chapters as each of the protagonists attempts to escape into a more hopeful future.
Not all the narrative strands are interwoven successfully. The story of Aisha, James's cleaner and a refugee from the Sabra-Shatila camp, feels self-consciously worthy. Similarly, some paragraphs on the provenance of blood diamonds could have migrated from the pages of a Sunday supplement. But Kenway manages to create a world which, despite the occasional false notes, fully engages the reader's sympathies.
The tourist in him sometimes overwhelms the novelist - there are a few painful funny-foreigner moments, and a description of a wedding that seems rather unnecessary to the plot. In other hands, this could easily have slipped into thinly disguised travelogue, but Kenway sustains an intimate portrait of Beirut life from an outsider's point of view. Perhaps his experience will inspire other writers to move their fictions into less familiar orbits.
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